In this instalment of Role Model in Training, Faye unpacks how to deal with loneliness, grief and feeling stuck.
Dear Faye, I’m pretty stuck! After a profound loss of a partner 8 years ago, I made a huge effort to build a new life, going out a lot, doing many different things, eventually dating. It didn’t work so I also started weekly therapy four years ago. Still very much alone 95% of the week. Some sense I need to be much more creative about how I try to go forward. Despite living in London, being super active, there’s a feeling that I’m doing things in much the same way, similar patterns. Maybe I need disruptive inputs, but don’t know how!
Congratulations – of all the Role Model in Training submissions, this is the question that stumped me the most. You’ve tried all of the easy tricks I could’ve suggested: you’ve tried going out, you’ve tried soul searching, you’ve tried meeting new people. Now, you’re stuck with ennui, that terrible phenomenon that’s grasped our whole generation.
This feeling of confusing, endless, frustrating boredom is the true sign of the times; we’re battling an endless listlessness, a hazy future with no clear route forward. So, you’ve given me a real challenge here. I’ve gotta go deep with this. After all, you’re dealing with emotions that grind us into standstills. Loneliness is like a dropped anchor: the more we feel overwhelmed by the weight of it, the more it settles us into place. But according to the song I’m listening to right now, “If you wanna put in work, you gotta go berserk.” Meaning, of course, if we want to find a way out of this, we’ll have to try some creative solutions. Let’s get into it.
So, I think you’re right that disruptive inputs are the key towards moving forward. Since the preliminary “soul searching boredom ending” stuff hasn’t stuck with you, we’re going to try something more fun and more realistic. I’m suggesting this because I don’t really think the cliche Join a club! Take a class! loneliness-busting advice has aged very well, because the internet and the pandemic have restructured how people interact with each other.
I think to really find a way forward we’ll need to think about mindsets and lifestyles. The best solution I can propose is taking your alone time and moving it to busy environments, and seeing what that does for you. There’s a really wonderful line from an Ocean Vuong poem, where he writes, “Loneliness is still time spent with the world.”The way I interpret it is that even when you’re alone, you’re still part of something larger, cosmically. In a 2023 context, when everyone in the world is lonely, this line is even more significant.
Here’s what you’re going to try for the next two weeks. You’re going to start leaving the house every morning. The less you stay in, the less you’ll be seeing the same things every day. To make this sustainable, I’m going to recommend implementing a two-pronged approach: one part routine, one part adventure. The routine will offer you comfort, and keep you in touch with your mind and body. The adventure will let you safely enter your stretch zone.
Then – you’re going to try to start every morning (at least 5 out of 7 of them), with 3-5 things you can enjoy without fail. I offer: eating a breakfast you prepared yourself, making a fancy drink, stretching or dancing for ten minutes, something like makeup or skincare or haircare that allows you to touch your body, so on, so forth.
After you mentally prep out this routine, make a list of different ‘third spaces’ to explore. And don’t let it live in your notes app – when you go to reference it, it’ll be too easy to fall into an endless void of scrolling. You know I’m right. Get it on paper! You can decorate it with doodles, cut it into slips and put it in a cute jar you thrift, or make a paper chain.
Every day, pick one place off the list, and within the first couple hours of your day, go explore. I’ve referenced this with some people in my life who are very good at filling their lives with adventure, and apparently this strategy works extremely well. Essentially, you can do anything you want as you’re out of the house. No need to spend money. Activities I’ll offer: sitting and reading in a bookstore, journaling, taking good or bad pictures or videos with an iphone or a nicer camera, doodling, people watching, studying, and – don’t abuse this one – sitting on your phone doing nothing.
I’ve found that when I’m bored for too long, any lingering negative feelings begin to compound. They feel sharper, more dangerous, harder to defend against. Misery loves company; when you’re dealing with grief, this is an especially dangerous reality. I often revisit this image adapted from Dr. Lois Tonkin’s study about grief, which suggests the feeling of loss doesn’t decrease, but instead, remains static as we grow around it. Though I don’t know the specifics of the loss of your partner, I know that mourning is one of the most isolating and god-awful experiences, and I’m wondering if you discussed in therapy any helpful techniques to keep your head above water. I mostly ask this because I know that psychologists and academics and everyone touched by the immeasurably intense, non-linear experience of grieving seem to universally agree that community helps. And I get the sense that in your search for disruptive inputs, you’re seeking a way to transform and reduce that 95% of alone time.
What I’m hoping you’ll get out of this new exercise is variety. Go see how many people there are in the world! Go look at a dog in a ridiculous outfit and laugh. Go into the bakery you’ve walked past 100 times and browse. Go make a stupid joke with a barista. Go, go, go! Even if you’re alone in terms of intimate connections, you won’t be alone in the world. If you find a place you really love, keep returning there. You might find community. And engage those senses! No one can generate interesting feelings if they sit at home all day. If you keep going out – that’s how you’ll disrupt that feeling of sameness.
As you go on these new, mini adventures, you’re going to experience new emotions. Yayyyyyyy, right? Change is scary, so breaking a routine can be exhilarating or painful. Maybe you’ll experience new levels of excitement, maybe anxiety will get its ugly little claws in you, maybe you’ll be disturbed at your internal monologue, maybe you’ll find your new calling: I can’t predict what it’ll bring. But I think any therapist would tell you to notice (what I hope will be) new feelings, to record and question them. It will give you clues, context, closure, or clarity (all these wonderful Cs!)
My column is called role model in training, so I’m going to admit to you – this is advice I’ve been implementing in my own life, and right now, all I’ve written is how far I’ve gotten in the process. The reason I can’t predict what it’ll bring is partially because I haven’t experienced the long-term results on my own yet.
Freelance writing full-time sucks you into a spiral of banality. You can go days, weeks, without seeing anyone. So I’ve been trying to take my own advice and it’s worked okay – I’ve been somewhat loyal to my routine, and even when I have a terrible day outside, it’s more generative than a boring day inside. If I wanted to get woo-woo with you, I’d say that the adventure of trying to go out will turn into a valuable memory on its own, even if nothing else comes with it. Maybe that’s the lesson here: right now, anything’s better than being bored.